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Too Many Hats Stress Out the Mama

Lately I've been thinking about how I often write about the symbiotic relationship between managing and parenting. There are skills used at home that are transferable to the workplace; you're often learning as much about yourself on-the-job as you are as a parent. While I haven't changed my mind about my belief in the symbiosis, some recent experiences have made me aware that while a working mother can wear many hats, it's often inconvenient to wear them at the same time.

An example is my recent working-while-vacationing experience that is now referred to in my house as "Do you remember what happened at Kinko's?" I had some work to catch up on and needed a place to dock my laptop, review correspondence and print out some documents. Kinko's had everything I needed, down to a private desk with ample space and a printer right behind me. My husband planned to take the kids to the bookstore while I worked. But just before he left he thought he'd get in a few copies himself. By this point, I was humming along, reading and responding to e-mails, proofreading speeches, printing out paperwork to read on the anticipated long ride home a few days later. There was a student to my right, a small businessman to my left and I felt like them. I had shifted into worker mode. I was making time. I had forgotten I was a mother. Then, my daughter appeared and whispered in my ear, "Mom, come quick, Dad needs help."

I glanced at her but kept typing, thinking she was kidding me.

"Uh, huh," I nodded, acknowledging her but not moving from my chair.

"Mom, I'm not kidding," she said. "He needs help with Kristine."

This time, I stopped working and looked directly at her. She was talking about the baby so I knew maybe something was up. She pointed across the room and I stood and looked toward the front of the store. The baby was sitting in her stroller and my husband was standing next to her looking perplexed. I wondered what they were doing in Kinko's anyway, since they were supposed to be at the bookstore and away from me while I worked. I reluctantly got up, told my daughter to watch my laptop and walked over to my husband.

"What is it? " I asked.

"Well," he answered. "We've had a blowout, a big one."

For those non-parent readers, a blowout is just like it sounds, but imagine it with a diaper, not a tire. Now, Kristine's our third child, and this wasn't the first time my husband handled a blowout. But before I could ask why my work was being interrupted for this, he added, "Be careful where you step." I looked down and thought I heard the theme music from Psycho as it was used when Eddie Murphy faced an unfortunate potty training situation in the film Daddy Day Care.

My husband continued talking. "When I was making my copies there was a terrible smell. I thought a dog had wandered in. By the time I realized it was her, this had happened."

"This" was almost indescribable. The mother of all blowouts, in Kinko's no less. I have to say I did not want to take off my worker hat at that moment. I did not want to put on my mommy hat and acknowledge these people and this mess. But I couldn't deny the baby was mine, she looks just like me. Besides, the store staff was looking at me expectantly, so I helped clean up. And, while the staff was very nice, I imagined them planning notes to the corporate office suggesting a "No Kids" policy. I was thinking if they didn't do it maybe I would.

My other example of "Too Many Hats Stress Out the Mama" is the more recent phenomenon of being available 24/7. I work in an industry that actually is open or "on" 24/7 so the idea is not foreign to me. But, with mobile phones and PDAs, this expectation of availability has gone global. When I'm wearing my worker hat, I am fine with this. It's another story when my mommy hat's on. During my "off" hours if I receive a work-related call, I rarely answer my cell phone if my kids are with me unless I'm expecting the call and have prepared the caller for what they might hear. I check my messages frequently and I always return calls but I try to create a controlled environment before I call back. Now, I admit, sometimes that's a locked closet (clothes provide excellent sound buffering) or a bathroom with the fan on (I could be in an airport, a train station, a wind tunnel, the possibilities are endless).

As any parent knows, it's not a pretty sight when you're trying to engage in a work-related call from home or in the car and your kids choose that exact moment when to start WW III or insist you listen to the joke they made up (even though you've heard it 17 times that day already).

I have been on conference calls when I can hear my kids' voices rising in the other room and then before my nanny can stop them the voices become people bursting into my office screaming "I'm telllllliiiiing." As they enter the room I'm muting the call while making wild gyrations with my arms indicating they must leave the room immediately. It's usually at this point that the conference call facilitator asks for my comments on the plan. Before I un-mute the phone I explain to my children that every privilege they've ever imagined will be gone if there is one peep while I answer this question. I then quickly give what I hope is an intelligent, well thought out answer while giving "the look" to said children and hoping the threat of losing TV, computers and sweets will ensure their silence.

Although I love technology I can't imagine using a video phone when I'm working at home or during "off" hours. When I'm in my mommy environment, wearing my worker hat, there are some things I don't want heard or seen, including my desperate gyrating arms and my secret weapon, "the look." That's definitely for my kids' eyes only.